Counseling Clients

You know how to research the law.  You know how to argue the facts.  But how do you deal with this person who calls himself your client?  This article illustrates a coaching session in which a mid-level law firm associate learns to prepare a client for a deposition.  

Following is a case study based on an actual coaching session in which an inexperienced law firm Associate learns to prepare a client for an upcoming deposition.  This coaching session is one in a series of coaching programs offered by Hird Associates that are aimed at helping mid-level Associates make the necessary leap from technical experts to trusted client advisors.  This particular case study demonstrates how suggesting the right physical adjustment to the Associate caused a dramatic improvement in the Associate's presence and control during his meeting with the client.   

The coaching session is divided into three parts: (1) role-play of witness preparation; (2) feedback; (3) re-do of role-play.  Involved in the session are: (1)Karl (a fictitious name), a 2nd year Litigation Associate at a top-10 national law firm; and (2) Diana Hird, the coach, who acts alternately as the witness in the role-play and as the coach outside the role-play, and will be referred to alternately as Witness and Coach depending on her function at that time.   

Initial Assessment:

Before beginning the role-play, Coach observes Karl speaking to a colleague and notices Karl’s fast-paced speech pattern and frequent furtive glances to his Blackberry.  Immediately, Coach predicts that Karl’s speedy internal pace will be his greatest obstacle to communicating with the Witness.   

Personalized Coaching Approach:

The Coach considers two approaches to her role-play with Karl: (1) play a Witness that functions at a faster pace than Karl; or (2) play a Witness that functions at a pace that is significantly slower than Karl’s.  Either choice will create an obstacle to interpersonal communication and consequently, a learning experience for Karl. 

Coach chooses to play a character that is faster-paced than Karl.  The role-play begins as follows:

Witness:   (typing into Blackberry) I have 20 minutes for this prep so don’t worry about the niceties. 

Karl:         Actually we have a lot to cover, I don’t know if ……. 

Witness:   Son, I have a company to run; I have a lot of experience and I don’t need to be babied.  Just give me the gist and I’ll see you there next week. 

Karl:         Ok.  (speaking quickly)  The set-up will be that I’ll sit next to you; opposing counsel will sit across from ……… 

Witness:    Come on kid, don’t waste my time.  (tapping the watch on his raised wrist for effect) Give me the exec summary. 

Karl:         (speaking at the speed of light)  Their theory of the case will be that you had gotten the information from George before you sold your shares and our theory is that you sold the shares at that time because you were ……(continues to speak for four minutes without taking a breath or interacting with the Witness)

Observations During Role-Play:

During the above role-play, Coach observes the following physical manifestations in Karl: 

  • Both fists are tightly clenched
  • He is leaning far forward in his chair
  • He is facing Witness straight-on
  • His eyes are locked on the Witness’ eyes
  • He is breathless

Examining Role-Play:

Coach steps back from the role-play and initiates the debrief session with Karl. 

            Coach:  What percentage of words spoken during the role-play were yours? 

Karl:      I spoke most of the time.  80%. 

Coach:   Who controlled the meeting? 

Karl:      I tried to. 

Coach:   How did you try to control the meeting? 

Karl:      By talking as fast as I could so I could get through my agenda. 

Coach:   Did it work? 

Karl:      Well, I got the witness to stop complaining about the time. 

Coach:   True.  What was the purpose of meeting with the witness? 

Karl:      To prepare the witness. 

Coach:   Was the witness listening to what you said? 

Karl:      I don’t think so. 

Coach:   How do you know? 

Karl:       The witness' eyes looked spaced out. 

Coach:    Yes.  And you talked so fast I, as the witness, had no idea what you said.  Now, if I wasn’t understanding you, did you accomplish your purpose? 

Karl:       No.  So I guess I didn’t control the meeting. 

Techniques for Changing Associate’s Impact on Client:

At this point, Coach prepares Karl for a re-do of the role-play.  In formulating the right coaching intervention, Coach's goal is to find the smallest intervention that will yield the most improvement.  While Coach is looking for Karl to make substantial changes in his approach (slowdown speech, listen better, regain composure . . . ), Coach will not get Karl to make these changes by simply telling him to do so.  Direct instructions would have the unwanted effect of making Karl self-conscious (am I talking slowly enough now?) and of confusing him (am I listening now?).  In such a state, anxieties about "getting it right" will defeat the intended goal. 

Coach therefore formulates an intervention that is intended to achieve the desired results without making Karl aware of what results he is being asked to achieve. Suggesting a physical adjustment is one way of doing this.  Coach tells Karl: 

        Turn at a slight angle away from Witness

        Lean back in your chair 

The second role-play follows with Karl taking on the posture suggested by Coach: 

Witness:         I have twenty minutes for you. 

Karl:               (pause) We have a problem. (pause

Witness:         (pause) What? 

Karl:               (out of natural impulse, folding his arms)  This can’t be done in twenty minutes. (pause)

Witness:         (annoyed but listening) Well what do you need. 

Karl:               (long pause then inspiration) It’s not what I need.  It’s what you need.  It’s the money you stand to lose if...(stops himself as he notices Witness’s physiological change

Witness:         (looks down at table and rubs temple… long pause, then speaking softly to herself)  Sh*t, I don’t have the time for this.  (sigh) What a mess. (shakes head then looks up and says reluctantly)  Go on. 

In this role-play, Karl is more self-possessed.  As a result, he has successfully taken control from the Witness.  There is a physiological explanation for Karl’s change.  Turning sideways and leaning back allows Karl to separate from the Witness and her concerns and simultaneously to connect to his own thoughts and perceptions.  The physical change creates a parallel mental change.  Karl’s speech also becomes much slower and contains pauses.  This change happened automatically from the simple physical adjustment.  And by not telling Karl explicitly to slow down, the Coach avoided making Karl self-conscious of his speech.  This approach is used frequently by theater and film directors to coax actors to develop their characters in a particular way.  In fact, what Coach has done in this session is to help Karl create a particular character that will best serve him in this type of situation.   

Coach:          Was there a particular point where you gained control in the second role-play? 

Karl:             Yes.  When you said “well, what do you need?” 

Coach:          How was that a change in control? 

Karl:             Just that suddenly you were asking about what I needed rather than telling me what you needed.  Though it annoyed me because it’s not for me.  We’re doing this for you.  It’s your case. 

Coach:          And you told me that.  Gutsy. 

Karl:             Yeah.  And you didn’t get me fired. 

Coach:          No.  In fact, what was the effect? 

Karl:             Your demeanor changed. 

Coach:          How? 

Karl:             You got all weird and confused. 

Coach:          And how did you react? 

Karl:             I didn’t know what to do so I just stopped talking. 

Coach:          And what was the effect of that? 

Karl:             You just sort of turned yourself around somehow. 

Coach:          Yes.  In the direction you wanted me to go. And you did this without too much effort. 


In the case study, Karl was asked to adjust his physicality in a way that would move his focus in a more inward direction.  This adjustment was effective for him because he was initially too caught up in the Witness’ antics.  What is important to note is that this adjustment will not necessarily help another Associate.  Another Associate might have the opposite tendency and have too much internal focus.  Ironically, for such an Associate, the coaching intervention might be to ask him to sit as Karl had been sitting during Karl's initial role-play.  Yet another Associate might be better served by an adjustment other than a physical adjustment.  For example, in another coaching session, one Associate disclosed in passing that her mother was a college professor.  In her role-play, this Associate tended to lecture the client.  For her re-do, she was asked to avoid making statements and focus on asking questions.  This shift was all it took for this Associate to move from an off-putting didactic style to a collaborative style of communication.  This shift was accomplished without her having to be told that she was didactic.

The approach used by Hird Associates differs from traditional litigation skills training programs.  The traditional programs focus on giving Associates a litany of "correct answers" for each situation in the form of "when the client says X, you should respond Y".  This traditional approach seems reasonable in theory but in practice it does not work.  Associates taught in this traditional method tend to say the "right words" but, in saying them, are not believable or convincing.  The Associates seem inexplicably salesmen-like which in turn affects their credibility in their clients' eyes.  On the other hand, individualized coaching like in the above example forces Associates to seek out their own way of getting a point across to clients.  When an Associate does this, the client will immediately sense it.  What the client senses in that moment is what people refer to as "Presence", that indefinable quality that engenders trust.  Developing Presence is what it takes for an Associate to jump from being a technical expert to being a trusted client advisor. 











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